Desperately Seeking Cormac

With the release of his latest novel, Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy’s fans are back in the business of parsing his sentences, probing his personal life, even looking in his garbageÑwhatever it takes to understand the fiercely private El Pasoan. Here’s what they’ve found.

John Grady and Magdalena fumble nervously like teenage screen lovers, and his stubborn passion leads to the inevitable showdown in the street. McCarthy has never been much on plot, letting his prose—muscular with the poetry of detail—and his characters—observed, heard, but never psychoanalyzed—tell the real story. But while the first two books of the trilogy also feature doomed and hackneyed teen romances, they are subplots; in Cities of the Plain John Grady and Magdalena get most of the attention. Add to this the fact that McCarthy has never been much on female characters—the women in the Border Trilogy are generally either inscrutable old sages or inscrutable young beauties with some world-destroying charisma—and the result is a silly love story, a pulp western Romeo and Juliet.

McCarthy readers will especially miss the imagistic risk-taking of his descriptions of nature. The souls of animals ran through the first two books, vessels for John Grady and Billy to cross over into another world. All the Pretty Horses was suffused with, well, horses. The first section of The Crossing followed Billy’s heroic journey south with a wounded wolf. The only animal story in Cities of the Plain features a wild, bloody hunt for a pack of marauding dogs; it and the knife fight between John Grady and the pimp—a horrific ballet of death—are the best things about the new book.

Fans of the first two volumes will enjoy the development of the friendship (beefed up from the screenplay) between John Grady and Billy, one ruled by the heart and the other with—literally and figuratively—a heart defect. They have the easy familiarity of Gus and Call in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Like those two and other great literary duos, John Grady and Billy are searchers—rushing to and fleeing from cities of iniquity, looking for a place each might belong, a country of his own. The one who finds it here dies young; the other, like the rest of us, keeps living, keeps looking.

Don’t Call Him a Texas Writer

TEXAS READERS ARE ALWAYS WILLING to claim someone as a Texas writer, especially a great writer who lives in the state and writes so well about it. Rhode Island’s claiming McCarthy as a Rhode Island writer would be (almost) as dopey. The fact is, he is a writer, period. He writes through obscurity, and he writes through fame. His influences run from Melville (his favorite book is Moby Dick) to Faulkner (whose editor, Albert Erskine, was McCarthy’s at Random House), from Flannery O’Connor (who was also raised Catholic in the Protestant South) to Hemingway, Joyce, Dickens, and Homer. When he lived in Tennessee, he wrote about dispossessed mountain loonies like Lester Ballard and lost river cynics like Cornelius Suttree; when he got to Texas, he wrote about stoic, unsatisfied cowboys like John Grady Cole and Billy Parham.

McCarthy may not be a native Texan, but he set out to learn as much as he could about the state when he arrived in El Paso 22 years ago. He researched Blood Meridian exhaustively, visiting every location he wrote about and learning Spanish, which shows up extensively and untranslated in all four of his westerns. He doesn’t write about Texas so much as he explores the borderlands between Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. His characters are always crossing between two worlds: the normal one and the underworld, the violent natural one and the violent man-made one, the seen and the unknown.

In Fact, Just Don’t Call Him

CONTRARY TO POPULAR WISDOM, McCarthy is not a recluse. But he is and always has been an intensely private man and a reluctant public one. Annie DeLisle recalled in 1992 how when they lived in the converted barn in the seventies, “Someone would call up and offer him two thousand dollars to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.”

In El Paso McCarthy has a circle of friends, goes to parties (though he quit drinking alcohol when he moved there), and is, according to one local, “very congenial.” Richard B. Woodward, who conducted the 1992 Times interview, found him to be “an engaging figure, a world-class talker, funny, opinionated, quick to laugh.” Betty Ligon, who was a columnist for the now-defunct El Paso Herald-Post, says he’s “cordial, even if he’s wary of the press.” But not everyone is taken in by the McCarthy mystique. El Paso writer Debbie Nathan scoffs at how he won’t read at local literary festivals and won’t sign one of his books for a fan out in public, yet the Ecco Press will sell autographed copies of The Gardener’s Son for $175 (unsigned copies go for $22). “He won’t take the most minimal role in the community,” she complains.

He’s Eligible for Medicare

MCCARTHY TURNS 65 THIS MONTH. He is an avid golfer and pool player, likes to restore old pickups, and loves science. Ligon says that when she sees him out at a restaurant, he “always has a pile of reading material with him: research books, how-to manuals, books about mechanics, and always a New York Times.

And this spring he got married again, to Jennifer Winkley, who has a degree in English and American literature from the University of Texas at El Paso; she turned 33 this summer. They work out together at Gold’s Gym. Gossips say she’s pregnant. Other recent rumors had McCarthy leaving his little stone house on Coffin Avenue and moving to Alpine, or Albuquerque, or Spain. But he just bought a new home in the upscale Coronado Country Club area, high up on Franklin Mountain, overlooking the lights of El Paso and Juárez.

Desperately Seeking Cormac

RICK WALLACH IS LIKE MANY MCCARTHY fans whose lives were changed by the writer’s books. He discovered them by accident one night in 1991 when he happened upon a copy of Blood Meridian and didn’t put it down until he had finished it the next day. Wallach began

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